Yogi Adityanath’s Impact On BJP Strategy For Karnataka
To the crowd of supporters, the BJP leader said, “Whoever wants the Babri Masjid should vote for the Congress; those who want a Ram Mandir should vote for the BJP”.
The proclaimer was Sanjay Patil, a lawmaker from the BJP, who was addressing his constituency in North Karnataka. “I want people to choose whether they will celebrate Shivaji Maharaj Jayanti or Tipu Sultan Jayanti,” he told NDTV, using a riff introduced months earlier in the campaign for the southern state.
Karnataka votes in about three weeks on May 12. The Congress, sans any recent electoral success, needs to win Karnataka, one of just three states that it now controls. The BJP, meanwhile, is trying to reclaim the state where it formed its first southern government 10 years ago. And Hindu-Muslim rhetoric has been on tap since Yogi Adityanath entered the state with a series of yatras or tours that began in December. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh belongs to a sect of priests who run a powerful math or seminary in Mangaluru in Coastal Karnataka.
It was there that the 45-year-old saffron-robed Yogi publicly asked the people to “choose between Hanuman Jayanti and Tipu Sultan Jayanti”, denoting the Congress as a pro-Muslim party. Two years ago, the Congress government in Karnataka decided to commemorate the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, provoking protests from the BJP. Both sides have been furiously cherry-picking historical facts to create competing narratives of Tipu, the 18th-century religious bigot who forced the conversion of Hindus, versus Tipu, the country’s first freedom fighter who died while fighting the British to prevent the invasion of Mysuru.
“Whether in the past Tipu Sultan was a nationalist or anti-Hindu, whether in the future a Ram Mandir will be built in Ayodhya, how will these debates solve the problems I’mfacing today?” said Manjunath, a sugarcane cultivator who lives about 30 kilometres from the border with Maharashtra. Farmers like him have not been paid for years by sugar mills who bought their crop. “Our MLA has been saying that ‘Hindu versus Muslims is the only issue in this election and not development’. So where does it leave us?” he asked.
Manjunath is angry that despite the high number of farmer suicides in the state – over 600 between April and November last year – BJP leaders have not targeted the government of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah over rural distress. Instead, it is the alleged killing over the last four years of 24 activists linked to the Sangh Parivar that has driven the BJP’s strategy in coastal Karnataka, a decades-old frontier of Hindu-Muslim rivalry.
The coastal belt consists of: Dakshina or South Kannada where Muslims form 24 percent of the population, higher than the state average; the Udupi district ; and Uttara or North Kannada. The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh or RSS, has been a considerable force along the coast. Attempts to challenge that have been made by the Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Islamist organisation founded in Kerala in 2006.
The BJP claims that since 2014, two dozen activists have been murdered by membersthe PFI in coastal Karnataka . Police investigations have officially pointed to the involvement of PFI members in 10 of the 24 cases -the rest of the men were not victims of communal violence but family quarrels and land and business disputes, according to police documents. “One of the alleged victims was found to be alive and even received an apology from BJP lawmaker Shobha Karandlaje who had first made the list public,” an Udupi-based journalist told NDTV.
But at a public meeting in February in Bengaluru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said even his government was trying to facilitate “ease of doing business”, there was “ease of doing murder” in Karnataka.
“Coastal Karnataka has never been this divided,” charges Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, an activist who is a member of the Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony.
The divide between the two communities, activists say, has sharpened after the last state election in which the BJP, wrecked by infighting, won just two of the 19 seats from the three districts of coastal Karnataka. That’s when the RSS mobilized its formidable force of grassroots workers and delivered immediate results – barely a year later, the BJP won all three parliamentary seats in these areas.
“We will once again sweep coastal Karnataka,” Dr Bharath Shetty, a BJP candidate from Mangaluru, told NDTV. “People here are angry with the Congress government for deliberately taking no action against the killers of Hindu activists for fear of losing the minority vote.” He claims that there is no other election issue here except for the “murderous attacks on the protectors of the Hindu faith by members of the PFI.” He is contradicted by U Rajesh Naik, another BJP candidate, who says it’s wrong to write off the importance of development – and the lack of it on the Congress’ watch. “At the end of the day, all people want is a better life,” he says.
Last year, according to data shared in parliament, there were 100 incidents of communal violence reported in Karnataka which killed 9 people and injured more than 200, for which the BJP has publicly blamed the Congress government, charging it with failing to protect Hindus. Spooked, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, a self-confessed agnostic, suddenly declared he was aHindu. “Ram is a part of my complete name which is Sidda-Rama,” he said at public meetings and visited a series of major temples with Congress President Rahul Gandhi to reassure voters that he was not anti-Hindu. Days later, it was Yogi Adityanath who countered on behalf of the BJP challenging the Chief Minister to prove his Hindu credentials by banning cow slaughter in the state.
That was at the start of the year. After March 14, when the Yogi’s homestead of Gorakhpur voted against the BJP in a shock defeat for the party, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister has not returned to Karnataka.
Filling in for him are a host of home-grown Hindutva ambassadors, with union minister Anant Kumar Hegde leading the pack. Last year , he described secularists as “people without parentage who didn’t know their bloodline”. Earlier this month. Mr Hedge – who, according to some in the party, has the potential to be groomed as its next Chief Minister – alleged he was the target of a failed assassination after an escort car in his convoy as hit by a truck driven by a Muslim. The police said it was an accident; it turned out that the truck was owned by a relative of a BJP leader.
As opinion polls predict a fractured result, hordes of RSS swayamsevaks or volunteers – local journalists put the figure at 50,000 – are covering the coastal belt, meeting voters and urging them to support a ‘nationalist party’. “But this time our involvement in the elections is not limited to grassroot canvassing for votes, we will also be managing the polling booths for the BJP,”a swayamsevak from Udupi told NDTV.
Shadow groups who share the ideology of the Sangh Parivar have also become active. A provocative pamphlet in circulation in Mangaluru exhorts all Hindus to defeat the Congress “which is appeasing the PFI, its political wing and the followers of Tipu Sultan, and save Hinduism.”
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, attempting to deflect criticism of practising politically expedient “soft Hindutva”, has offered the theory of himself as “a secular Hindu” as opposed to the other side’s “communal Hindus”.
Coastal Karnataka is waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rejoinder when he visits the region next week where no other issue has been given any space.